By Steve Rosenbush
The Good Integrates e-mail, phone, and personal organizer, with room to spare for music, video, and Web brows
The Bad It costs $450 after discounts
The Bottom Line The Treo 650 remains the best mobile communications device on the market currently
Note: This is the second in a series of smart-phone reviews.
After testing the Treo 650 smart phone for several weeks, I tried long and hard to come up with a reason why it shouldn't receive a rating of five stars.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]The experience wasn't perfect. Fat Web pages loaded with pictures, like the home page at www.cnn.com, take forever and a day to load. Long e-mails break into chunks, and this forces users to click on the "more" bottom and wait for the next part of the message to come in. And a focusable lens on the built-in camera would have been an improvement.
But I couldn't really blame the Treo's producer, PalmOne (PLMO), for those problems. The speed of the Treo's wireless Internet connection is determined by cell-phone networks, not Palm. Treo appears to have used the best technologies available when it introduced the 650 last year. And it has done a good job of integrating them.
No big flaws there.
PASSING INSPECTION. Could the 650 possibly have aeight problem? Well, the device feels a little on the heavy side. But then so does a Mercedes sedan. And the 650 is still lighter and slimmer than many other mobile communications devices on the market. In short, its weight suits me fine.
I finally decided that the 650 was just about as good as it could be, given the state of technology when PalmOne released it last year. It deserved a five-star rating back then. Even more impressive, it deserves a five-star rating today. It has yet to be knocked from mobile computing's top tier, even though a few promising contenders are on the way.
Anyone who's looking for a well-designed mobile device that can handle e-mail, Internet access, phone calls, manage contacts and calendars, take pictures and video, and record and play music, ought to consider the Treo 650. The pocket-sized wonder also serves as a modem for your laptop, allowing you to access the Internet anywhere you go. It's outstanding in nearly every way, and with a street price of less than $500 -- about $450 with discounts -- it's fairly priced for a high-end gadget.
OUTSTANDING APPS.?The 650's hardware is extremely well designed, and that Mercedes analogy holds up pretty well. The sculpted blue-and-chrome plastic shell feels solid and substantial. The keypad works well, making it easy to type e-mails of several sentences or even several paragraphs in length. The speaker and microphone integrate nicely into the device, which feels like a phone and not a brick when you hold it next to your ear.
The great design shows even in the stylus, which is heavy enough so that it rests in your hand like a small pen, not a flimsy plastic drink stirrer. And it slides snugly into its mount on the back of the device.
The 650's large, well-lit, and crisp screen makes multimedia applications a pleasure. Web pages, photos, and video come alive. Its speaker does a decent job of playing music, although you'd need headphones or external speakers for serious listening.
The device's software is outstanding, too. My test model came loaded with applications from Good Technology. Good makes software for "push e-mail." Like the BlackBerry (see BW Online, 4/27/05, "BlackBerry: Too Long on the Vine"), it delivers e-mail, contact, and calendar information directly from the corporate desktop computer to the handheld device, and vice versa.
BETTER ORGANIZATION. This process happens in real time through a cell-phone network. You don't need to put the device in a cradle or hook it up to a USB port to synchronize it with a computer at work. If you add an item to your calendar while you're sitting in your living room at 9 p.m., it will be waiting for you on your desktop calendar when you arrive at the office the following morning.
The push e-mail feature is going to be a huge deal. And Good Technology's version is excellent. The Good system is similar to a desktop organizer, placing e-mail into folders such as an "in-box" and "out-box." The BlackBerry, on the other hand, dumps all messages, including incoming messages, sent messages, and voice mail, into one box. Now, behind the BlackBerry approach is a serious rationale: It's easy for people to manipulate the system while they're on the go, with a BlackBerry in one hand and a briefcase or purse in the other.
But I found the Good system easy enough to use. And consumers who are going to use the Treo while they're seated in the living room or hotel room will appreciate that it looks just like their e-mail environment at the office. Actually, it is the e-mail environment from the office, rendered on a small, mobile screen. The push feature is only available for use with corporate e-mail servers, though. Consumers can get their e-mail by reading it from a Web page or forwarding it directly to the Treo. It works pretty well.
LIMITED LENS. The Treo 650 accepts memory cards, which means users can load it with multiple applications, songs, and photos. One of the coolest: A third-party software program from pdanet, which can be downloaded for free at junefabrics.com. It installs in a minute and allows you to use the 650 as a wireless modem for your laptop.
As a test, I brought my laptop home and worked outside one afternoon, and the connection was good. It isn't as fast as Wi-Fi, but Web pages loaded with acceptable speed. And the connection is nearly ubiquitous. It functions everywhere that your cell phone does.
The other multimedia features work fine. The camera and camcorder are decent but would benefit from the ability to focus the lens. The hard drive has enough storage to maintain seven minutes of video. If you store video and photos on a memory card, the possibilities are unlimited. Loaded with a 2-gigabyte memory card, the Palm will store several full-length movies. You might ask yourself if you really want to watch a movie on a handheld device. But given the high quality of the screen, you just might.
E-MAILING ON THE FLY. The 650 is holding up quite well as it begins to approach the end of its life cycle. PalmOne hasn't announced the timetable for its next-generation device, but history suggests one ought to appear in the next six to nine months.
The device and its successors won't really come into their own until cell-phone networks get a little faster, making it easier to download Web pages and large e-mails. But the 650 already meets the mark as a business tool. I used my demonstration model to download and manage more than 1,300 contacts, keep my calendar up to date, and manage e-mail on the fly, answering questions from my editors as I rode a train across the Manhattan Bridge.
I downloaded Microsoft (MSFT) Word files from my laptop and edited them on the 650. You can do the same with Excel and other major applications. It easily opens e-mail attachments, including photos and Adobe Acrobat files.
CAN'T EXPECT MORE. I spoke to one or two committed BlackbBerry users who said they really want their device only for e-mail and phone calls and that they don't care about photos and the rest. That's fine, but I do care. I happily used the Treo to take pictures of my daughter's soccer game, and I used Real Player to store dozens of songs on it.
One day, probably soon, a better device will surpass the 650. But given the state of play today, it's hard for me to imagine how you could reasonably expect more features or better performance from this device. So I give it a five.
Coming next: Rosenbush tries out a next-generation mobile e-mail device from Nokia
Rosenbush is a senior writer for BusinessWeek Online in New York